Former CIA heads ask Obama to stop investigation

Former top officials want the president to call off an inquiry into detainee abuse

Published September 18, 2009 9:30PM (EDT)

A group made up of former directors of Central Intelligence and the CIA has written to President Obama, asking him to overrule Attorney General Eric Holder and stop an investigation into cases in which CIA employees and contractors went beyond the interrogation limits set by the Bush administration.

The letter is signed by everyone who's headed the CIA since 1973 and is still living, with just two exceptions -- former President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Included among the signatories are three men appointed to their post by former President Clinton -- R. James Woolsey, John Deutch and George Tenet -- and two appointed by President George W. Bush, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden.

"Attorney General Holder’s decision to re‐open the criminal investigation creates an atmosphere of continuous jeopardy for those whose cases the Department of Justice had previously declined to prosecute. Moreover, there is no reason to expect that the re‐opened criminal investigation will remain narrowly focused," the letter says.

"If criminal investigations closed by career prosecutors during one administration can so easily be reopened at the direction of political appointees in the next, declinations of prosecution will be rendered meaningless. Those men and women who undertake difficult intelligence assignments in the aftermath of an attack such as September 11 must believe there is permanence in the legal rules that govern their actions .... [T]his approach will seriously damage the willingness of many other intelligence officers to take risks to protect the country. In our judgment such risk-taking is vital to success in the long and difficult fight against the terrorists who continue to threaten us."

The Justice Department has put out this statement in response:

The Attorney General works closely with the men and the women of intelligence community to keep the American people safe and he does not believe their commitment to conduct that important work will waver in any way.

Given the recommendation from the Office of Professional Responsibility as well as other available information, he believed the appropriate course of action was to ask John Durham to conduct a preliminary review. That review will be narrowly-focused and will be conducted by a career prosecutor who has shown an ability to handle cases involving classified information. Durham has not been appointed as a special prosecutor; he will be supervised by senior managers at the Department.

The Attorney General’s decision to order a preliminary review into this matter was made in line with his duty to examine the facts and to follow the law. As he has made clear, the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees.

The full letter is available in PDF form here.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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